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Reviews in American History 29.3 (2001) 460-476

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In Retrospect:
Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America

James T. Kloppenberg

Louis Hartz. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1955.

Almost half a century after its publication in 1955, Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America continues to influence the way many Americans think about their nation and its history. Conservatives and radicals alike still explicitly invoke or implicitly embrace Hartz's analysis to support the claim that devotion to individualism and defense of property rights have defined American culture. In this retrospective assessment, I advance two arguments. First, despite its importance as a historical document, The Liberal Tradition in America (hereafter referred to as LTA) provides an inadequate account because its analysis is too flat and too static. Hartz focused exclusively on issues of economics and psychology and missed the constitutive roles played by democracy, religion, race, ethnicity, and gender in American history. He therefore misunderstood (as thoroughly as did his predecessors and progressive bêtes noires Beard, Turner, and Parrington, whose work he sought to replace) the complicated and changing dynamics of the democratic struggle that has driven American social and political conflict since the seventeenth century. We should historicize Hartz's analysis, understanding it in the context of the early post-World War II era rather than treating it as a source of timeless truths about America. Second, acknowledging the inaccuracies of LTA is important for us, because the widespread acceptance of its argument has had consequences unfortunate for the study of American political thought and poisonous for political debate. The time has come to refocus our attention away from Cold War era controversies over liberalism and socialism, and away from more recent controversies over liberalism and republicanism, and turn our attention toward democracy.

Hartz's thesis, advanced by means of a rhetorical strategy calculated to dazzle his readers, was simple and elegant. He conceded that his approach could be characterized as a "'single factor' analysis" with two dimensions: "the absence of feudalism and the presence of the liberal idea" (p. 20). America lacked both a "genuine revolutionary tradition" and a "tradition of [End Page 460] reaction" and contained instead only "a kind of self-completing mechanism, which insures the universality of the liberal idea" (pp. 5-6). In order to grasp this all-encompassing liberal tradition, Hartz argued, we must compare America with Europe. Only then can we understand not only the absence of socialism and conservatism but the stultifying presence and "moral unanimity" imposed by "this fixed, dogmatic liberalism of a liberal way of life." Moreover, the "deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion" of American liberalism "transforms eccentricity into sin," an alchemy that explains the periodic eruption of red scares (pp. 9-12). In short, "the master assumption of American political thought" is "the reality of atomistic social freedom. It is instinctive in the American mind" (p. 62).

Hartz advanced his interpretation by contrasting, in a series of chronologically arranged chapters, the nation's continuous history with the convulsions of European revolutions and restorations. He insisted that Americans' shared commitment to Lockean (or, as he spelled it, "Lockian") liberalism enabled them to avoid upheavals at the cost of enforcing conformity. He used "Locke" as shorthand for the self-interested, profit-maximizing values and behaviors of liberal capitalism, against which he counterposed, on the one hand, the revolutionary egalitarian fervor of Jacobins and Marxian socialists, and, on the other, the traditional hierarchical values of church elites and aristocrats under various European ancienregimes. Unfortunately, however, because Hartz never paused to explain exactly how he understood feudalism or precisely what he meant by Locke or liberalism, the meaning of his terms remained vague and his central claims fuzzy. 1

It was an arresting argument, though, especially coming so soon after Senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist crusade and during a time of widespread national self-congratulation. LTA established Hartz, the son of Russian immigrants who had grown up in Omaha and taken undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard before...


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